Saturday, January 31, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay

"Y2K: Chinese Fundamentalist Hackers Don't Celebrate Boxing Day"

I am sitting in my living room with a shotgun on my lap. This is not, as you might be thinking, a last ditch effort to keep the kids in line until school opens up again and I get my life back. No, the shot gun is only one small piece of insurance, just in case it turns out that there really is something to this Y2K stuff and hordes of Chinese fundamentalist computer hackers come roaring down the street with crashed hard drives and try to steal all our Christmas presents. I am trying to pretend to be sane and rational about this, but if I'm not it's okay, because nobody can see me behind the huge wall of canned goods and bottled water.

Not that I really need the shotgun. I'm pretty sure that nobody could get across the moat and through the barbed wire-- I call it a moat, but actually it's just something the dog left behind after eating a whole box of Christmas chocolate. And the barbed wire is really only an attempt by my ten year-old, T.L. Bear, to put up Christmas lights.

But if somebody got through all these obstacles, and over the wall of canned goods and bottled water, and slogged through the fragments of wrapping paper and ribbon that make our living room look like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade took a wrong turn and came through the house, they would find me sitting in my rocking chair, shotgun on my lap, desperately trying to put batteries into all the kids' Christmas presents. And maybe the whole thing would end right there, because even Chinese fundamentalist computer hackers would have pity on me.

Everybody the whole world round has just spent a week putting in batteries, and they never fit. Although to be perfectly truthful, there are not as many batteries this year. This is partly because all the stores have pretty much sold out of batteries since panic-stricken parents, terrified that there will be Y2K problems, want to make sure their kids will have working toys during the collapse of our civilization. But it is also partly because the toys don't need as many batteries this year. Last year was the "Year Of Many Loud And Obnoxious Electronic Noisemakers Requiring Thousands Of Batteries." This year was the "Year Of Many Toys With More than 9,000 Pieces." I thought this was an improvement until I tried to walk into the kitchen for a cookie and severed a major artery in my foot when I stepped on the jaw bone from a scale model of some prehistoric thing that eventually evolved into hedge clippers. You don't dare go barefoot in any room in the house unless you bring along a box of butterfly bandages and your own orthopedic surgeon.

So because I have to keep my leg elevated and I'm sitting in the rocking chair with time on my hands, I have reflected long and hard on the whole Y2K thing, and I have decided that we don't need it. It is true that, as far as marketing goes, it was a brilliant stroke. It brought gun makers in on the commercial bonanza that is Christmas, and it gave retailers a second chance to sell all those leftover hurricane supplies.

But on the down side, we really don't need another holiday right now, especially if it involves more time off from school. And in fact, I think we can seriously consider getting rid of a couple of the holidays we already have. After all, how much do you really miss Boxing Day? This is a holiday we don't even celebrate in this country any more, so it is important for us to review it and feel superior to all the foreigners who do celebrate it and so have to buy a whole bunch more stuff for another day nobody really understands.

I used to think that "Boxing Day" meant the day you got rid of all the boxes left over from your Christmas presents. Then I got older and more sophisticated and I realized that, since it was an English holiday, it didn't have to mean anything. England is a country where they have place names like "Wopping Cross," and "Tinsel-Steps On The Woad Crossing Shire," and "Leomencestireshire" (pronounced "Lemon"). And having to write names like these over and over on the dozens of government forms they have to fill out just to watch TV has made the British so tough that they figure they can pretty much do whatever they want with holidays, and if we don't like it they'll just burn our capitol again.

So they can keep Boxing Day. Whatever it might really mean to them, I have discovered the true meaning for anybody with kids. I now know that it's called Boxing Day because the kids have spent weeks eating chocolate and getting wound up about Christmas morning and all the presents they will get. And now that it's all over, there is a huge emotional letdown and the kids snap like brittle rubber bands and spend the whole day screeching at each other and trading left hooks, and that's really why it's called "Boxing Day."

At first I thought the fighting was caused by jealousy over new toys, but after close observation I realized that this was not possible, because the kids were not playing with their toys. Apparently they don't know there are any toys.

Pookie spent Christmas Day playing with wrapping paper. She made a big soccer ball out of it and kicked it through the house. The next day after the dog shredded the soccer ball, Pookie moved on to playing with empty boxes. And finally, just last night, she actually played with an actual toy that she got as an actual present for the first time. She took a 49 cent plastic airplane on a string out of her stocking and threw it at the dog. And while he chewed happily on the airplane, Pookie climbed back into a box.

So I guess I will push all those expensive toys out front and if the Chinese fundamentalist computer hackers really do come roaring down our street, they can have them. But if anybody makes a move towards one of my kids' cardboard boxes, they get both barrels.
Happy Boxing Day. Whatever that means.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay

"The Very Bad Word"

We have several new bald spots on our wall this week where the paint has blistered right off and flaked onto the floor. The dining table is cracked and listing badly to one side. And over in one dark corner of the living room there is a patch of carpet that is worn all the way down to the padding. In the padding itself you can see the outline of two tiny, very energetic feet.
The singed walls and worn rug have nothing to do with the re-modeling we recently had done in our house. And they are not caused by hurricane damage or a gas attack from when we fed bad tacos to the dog. No, they are caused by something far more disturbing.

Three year-old Pookie has learned a very bad word.

The first time she said it I was driving her home from day care. She was singing "The Cheese Stands Alone," and she stopped singing for a moment. So I asked her what she had learned in school today, and she said the word. No newspaper in the civilized world, outside of Los Angeles, will print the word she said, so we will just pretend that she said, "Grout." This is, after all, a very bad word in our house right now anyway, after our re-modeling.

So although Pookie had stopped singing about lonely cheese and had clearly said, "Grout." I decided I had heard her wrong. After all, she's only three. She said it again. And this time, even though I definitely heard her say Grout, I decided that if I ignored it, she would stop saying it.
Please do not laugh at me or write me letters telling me how stupid that is. I know how stupid that is. It is as stupid as standing in a fire ant pile and deciding that they won't really bite you if you ignore them. It is as stupid as thinking that everybody on the road with you knows what a turn signal is for. It is even almost as stupid as voting for a politician and then getting angry when they don't do all the cool stuff they said they would do.

But that's what I did. I decided to ignore it. Even better, I convinced myself not to think about it anymore, and so I didn't. After all, this is a word so bad that if I heard myself say it I would wash my own mouth out with soap, and then get my belt and give myself a good whipping. And Pookie is the most angelic-looking three year-old girl you will ever see. She could pose for Valentines Day cards, although if she does it would be a very bad idea to give her a real bow and arrow. But the point is, you can't really see her face and imagine her saying Grout, unless you are the kind of person they are going to arrest for doing awful things on the Internet, and I hope they get you very soon.

So taking all things into consideration, using my mature best judgment based on a life filled with experience, and mixing that with a healthy dread of asking an angelic three year-old if she had really said Grout, I decided that, officially speaking, it had never happened. Pookie never said Grout.

And then the next morning, I came in to the breakfast table and found Pookie's ten year-old sister, T.L. Bear, sitting on the floor next to her chair with a stunned look on her face. All the hair was singed on one side of her head, one leg of the dining table was bent and there was a blistered patch of paint behind her on the wall.

"What's the matter, Bear?" I asked.

She turned stunned and stricken eyes on me. She raised a trembling finger and pointed at her sister, who was smiling happily and watching "Busy World" on TV. "It's Pookie, Dad," Bear said. "She said a real bad word."

"Don't be a tattle tale," I told her sternly, and went to get some coffee. As you can see, I was still working hard at not thinking about it. But a few moments later there was a loud clap of thunder in the living room. I heard sinister laughter in the distance, the dog started to howl and I felt the walls of the house begin to shake. I ran into the living room, and there was Pookie. She looked up at me. "Grout," she said, very distinctly. The blast knocked me backwards onto the couch and a picture fell off the wall onto my head.

I think it was the picture's impact on my skull that knocked some sense back into me. It was a very old picture, one of the really heavy kind they don't make any more, and it really hurt. It hurt me so much that I opened my mouth to say, "Grout!" and in one of those wonderful moments of clear-thinking that only come when your head hurts a lot, I realized that Pookie really and truly had actually said Grout first.

I don't know what I would have done if my wife hadn't come into the room just then. But luckily, she did. She grasped Pookie firmly by the ear and led her over to the corner where we keep our Thinking Chair. "That is a Very Bad Word," I heard my wife say through the dull ringing in my ears. "We don't use that word. Not ever." And she plopped Pookie down into the Thinking Chair.
Pookie began to wail immediately. Her feet scuffled back and forth so fast that the carpet began to melt. But we can't have angelic three year-olds wandering around saying Grout. It would disrupt the very fabric of our society. It had to stop here, no matter how much damage she did to the carpet.

I know she doesn't know what the word means. All she knows is that every time she says it everyone around her bursts into flame. That kind of power is tough to pass up when you are three years old.

Picture what must go on inside her three year-old brain. She has just started to figure out what words are for, and suddenly here's one that can actually crack the foundation of the house. If I know Pookie, she'll look for other words, now that Grout is forbidden. She'll want a word that can make it rain, and one to change her spinach into chocolate. And she doesn't give up -- so before too long, she'll find them. I'll say good morning. She'll say, "Phlegm!" and the TV will be stuck on The Xena Channel.

And when I hustle her into the corner, she'll say, "Gluten!" and the Thinking Chair will turn into a merry-go-round.

Leaving me once again with a spinning head and no way to keep up.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Lassie Sleeps With The Fishes, But I Have Insomnia"

If I have learned anything at all in my life, I have learned one thing. Well, actually two things, since I have also learned that a bulldozer always has the right of way, but that has nothing to do with what we're talking about today. No, what I have learned is this. None of us are immune from tragedy. No matter how smart or rich or important we are, no matter how often we go the gym or give money to the church, tragedy can strike any of us at any time. Even if we are a small and innocent goldfish named Lassie.
And more to the point, when we actually are a small goldfish named Lassie and tragedy strikes us, it is also a tragedy for others -- especially a small, curly-haired, hyperactive girl named Pookie who loves Lassie so much it's almost scary. And naturally enough, that means a crisis for Pookie's Dad -- me.
According to the Top Secret Handbook For Fathers, a very valuable book that has guided me through every family emergency so far, there are two basic responses to the Dead Pet Syndrome, or DPS as we call it. The first is simple: sit the kid down and say, "Sorry, kid, your pet is dead," and then deal with consequences -- which the Handbook warns may include contusions, abrasions, loss of income and ruptured eardrums. This method is brutal, and may seem hard on the kid, but it is honest, direct, and helps teach your child about the harsh and sometimes fatal nature of reality.
The second method for dealing with DPS is a little easier on you, at least at first. It is recommended for younger children, and also for children who hit really hard when they are upset. In this method, you hide the dead pet from the child and quickly replace it with a live one that looks as much as possible like the dead pet, except it should have more movement. The part about looking like the old one is very important, since replacing a goldfish with a hamster will probably not fool anyone, even a four year-old, unless you are a really fast talker.
Both of those methods have much to recommend them. And I would love to tell you which one I think is best. But if you read this column regularly you may have noticed that I try not to give advice too often. That is partly because I don't like to sound preachy, or pretend that I know all the answers. It is also partly because if I have learned anything from the experience of having two kids it is that I don't really know anything, and I am generally so tired and flustered from dealing with them that I am in no position to give anybody advice on anything.
However, I feel very confident about giving out one very clear piece of advice, and it is this: If you live in Florida and it is a hot day, do not put your daughter's dead goldfish into a plastic bag on the front seat of the car and then get stuck in traffic on the way to the pet store to replace the fish with one just like it before your daughter comes home and discovers that her beloved pet is bloated and floating belly up. Especially if it turns out that the plastic bag has holes in it because somebody has been experimenting with finding out what scissors can do. I really feel very good about this advice, and I know I know I am right.
And if this was an advice column, I would now tell you how to get the smell of dead sun-baked goldfish out of automobile upholstery. But this is not an advice column, and anyway I haven't figured that part out yet. So I will stick to saying, don't try this. And for the time being, don't accept a ride in my car. Believe me on this one, this is good advice.
Unfortunately, there are parts of this otherwise great advice I am not so confident about. First, the replacement method is actually a Great Big Fib, the kind we warn our kids not to do because it can lead to jail or a life of selling insurance. And because I am a New Age All-Things-Are-One-So-Eat-Your-Broccoli kind of Dad, I have never been comfortable with lying to my kids, even for their own good. When T.L. Bear's turtle ran away a few years back, I told her what had happened and we talked about whether she wanted a new one, or something else. She said she wanted a pony instead, which I pointed out was a pretty big trade-up from a turtle. She told me that her grief and mental suffering ought to be worth something, and a pony would be a big step on the road to seeing her smile again. I told her that was fine if she would clean up after the pony, and before she agreed to that she needed to imagine cleaning up after her dog if he was 100 times bigger and got into Grandma's chocolate box every day. Her eyes got very big, and we compromised on a hamster. I fully realize that in another five years I won't get away with that, and I hope Harvard Law School can smooth her out a little before then.
But anyway, that was Bear and her turtle, and this was Pookie and a fish. And this time I decided to go the other way, for three good reasons. First, all kids are different and Pookie, at 4, seemed more likely to be devastated by a dead fish than her sister was at 8 when the turtle ran away. My second reason was that I am now smart enough to know that I don't know anything. And finally, and most important, my wife decided that this was what I wanted to do, so I did it.
So there I was in traffic with a fish decomposing on the front seat of my car. And I have to say that it is moments like these that give Fatherhood the surreal glow I have come to enjoy most about the job.
I finally did get all the way to the pet store, and here's another tip you might not have known: if you want really fast service in a store, hold up a leaking bag that contains a warm, decomposing fish. I guarantee that the clerks will find time for you right away, even if they are on the phone or doing their nails.
I got New Lassie home safely, since Pookie hadn't been through the pet store's plastic bags with her scissors. And a week later, New Lassie is doing fine, and if Pookie has noticed any difference she hasn't said. So the fish is fine, Pookie is happy, and that should be a happy ending.
Except that I still feel guilty about the whole thing.
Which puts me in the very strange position of feeling bad because my daughter's pet is alive.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Fatherhood Blog

For five years I published a weekly column, called Fatherhood, in several Florida newspapers. At its peak, the column was in five papers -- not really enough to call it syndicated, but too many for a neurotic egotist to think of it as "local." So I always said it was Semi-Syndicated, which allowed me to seem self-deprecating and, at the same time, let everyone know that it was a much bigger deal than they might have thought.
The column began when my wife took a job producing the evening news, which basically meant that I was raising two little girls by myself. So it was good old Dad, for example, who bought his daughter her first bra, much to the vast amusement of everyone but me.
The column ended suddenly and with no real explanation. The editor of the local paper, the mainspring of the whole thing, informed me that I had, "really said about all there is to say on the subject." I pointed out to her that they had been running three columns on fishing since the dawn of time, and even though a lot of my fishing buddies would argue the relative importance, you at least had to admit that raising kids was slightly more complicated. No response; no further explanation. Column Over.
Since that time I have come to ponder the following: 1) The editor in question, a woman, had no children, and 2) She was Cuban-American. I mention this because I had just gone to Cuba and proposed to her a humorous article on the subject. Other Cuban-American friends have mentioned to me that this is like proposing to a Jewish editor a humorous article on the Holocaust.
Whatever the case, Fatherhood went down with a wimper.
Since that time, not a week passes without some new and mind-numbing outrage from my kids that makes me wish I was still writing the column. At least writing about it provided some kind of closure -- and I got paid for it, which took away some of the sting.
I have also heard from people in California, Oregon, Baltimore, New Jersey, and Canada, that my old columns are taped to the fridge and, since they're finally getting a new refrigerator, they need a new column and would I please get back to work?
With the success of Dexter, books and TV show, I really don't have the time to go back to a weekly column. Monthly, maybe, but so far, inexplicably, there have been no lucrative magazine offers.
So I thought, why not blog it?
I'm going to start by posting some of the old columns, one at a time. If there's enough interest, I'll start writing new ones again. And if there's no interest at all -- well, what the hell. Don't tell my agent.
I always had fun writing Fatherhood. I hope you enjoy reading it.
-Jeff Lindsay